BOOK REVIEW: The Tryst by Monique Roffey

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that bad writing is at its worst when it encounters sex. So entertaining is it that sex can be written so badly, an award is handed out annually to honour the worst sex scenes. Sex, in writing, is perhaps best left in the empty spaces and insinuations, or, as with Nabokov, done in the knowledge that it can be done well.  There has to be some certainty that what is put to page is not unintentionally disturbing and wrapped in clichés. Erotic fiction is the antithesis of this idea, carpet-bombing with sex scenes because, like a science fiction novel, some suspension of disbelief is naturally assumed. And like bad science fiction, too often escapism is used to drape bad writing over.

Perhaps since it is their chosen area, erotic novels cannot help but court repetition when it comes to descriptions of sex. There are, according to the Oxford Thesaurus, nineteen synonyms for female genitals, and seventy-eight for male (more words, coincidentally, than eskimos have for snow), however Roffey limits herself to a small community of quims and cocks, and although there is no need for fifteen different terms for penis to be used, the narrowness is characteristic of all the chorus scenes of the Tryst. Her characters ‘writhe’ and ‘squirm’, while Bill, one third of the main cast, possesses both a ‘velvet cock’ and ‘suede balls’ – genitals crafted from the finest sofa advertisements. Barely a page goes by without ‘dripping’ or ‘milking’, and for all the effort Roffey goes to to detail the stagnation of the marriage bed, it is in the adultery where the repetition and lack of surprise are found. For all the intended experimentation, the newness of Bill and Jane’s life with Lilah, we still go stumbling past ready-made phrases; ‘Lilah’s luscious red lips’, ‘creamy curves’, ‘drunk with lust’, and ‘curvaceous calves’. And among these dry patches come the entirely unexpected absurdities; ‘She played my cock like a musician plays a violin’, and, perhaps the strangest, ‘it’s like offering a juicy shrimp to a catfish.’

The cast of three – Bill, Jane, Lilah – are well-wrought, if slightly incomplete figures. Bill, ensnared by an unspoken plot between his wife and Lilah, is all too ready to acquiesce to this new woman. After all, we learn, Jane and he have lived celibately for at least two years; Jane finds Bill as arousing as the smell of a new book – pleasant, safe, but never sexy. Then Lilah arrives, first felt by Bill as ‘a small speck of heat on my face’. From here we discover the stereotype, the woodsman in need of a woodland nymph: ‘I wanted to fuck her, rut with her, run with her, take her into the forest, there and then.’ He is, we learn, pure masculinity, but contained. All he needs is a reason to release, and he doesn’t take much pushing.

Though we are given more time with Jane, there is less definition than we find with Bill, and ultimately, less to sympathise with. Her passivity moves from questionable to exasperating. Jane is, as Lilah repeatedly reminds us, ‘Miss Unfucked.’ Yet it is not in this apparent frigidity that Jane is a character without interest (and as we discover in one of Roffey’s more entertaining passages, Jane is no prude), but in her processes of thought and action. She is painted in colours of cliché and laziness, and there comes the sense that even Roffey did not enjoy Jane.In 1973, Gore Vidal wrote of the lazy ubiquity of the ‘Mirror Scene’, and here with Jane we still find precisely that over-used trope. In contrast, Lilah’s own mirror scene is, in its simplicity, at least humorous – ‘God,’ Lilah tells us, ‘I turned myself on looking in the mirror.’ We see, in reflections, the aesthetic disadvantage Jane is at, while simultaneously at an authorial disadvantage, since Roffey provides Jane with not one line of the novel’s strongest prose. Only in her moments of anger does she become compelling, and in her final encounter with Lilah, she finally becomes a tangible shape.

Constructed from a handful of myths, from Lilith to Lolita, Lilah is the vicious nuclei of The Tryst, paling the environment around her to sepia. A caricature, a walking personification of the ‘Eros’ so tiresomely referred to throughout the novel, Lilah pads into Bill and Jane’s marriage without scruple, guilt or shame, and most importantly, she has the capacity to be funny. As the best criminals and deviants do, as Humbert Humbert does, Lilah makes us complicit. She revels in her own lack of restraint, in her own cartoonish vulgarity – ‘The English are such hypocrites. Fuck them and their tight-ass Queen.’ ‘The men stared,’ she tells us in the opening pages, ‘My cunt scent had already intoxicated them.’ Her success stems from this glorification of shamelessness, and from this has the confidence to speak as all-knowing: ‘But she [Jane] had never foraged, been out there to find it. Most human females don’t, to be fair, for they get labelled sluts and sluts in the human realm aren’t respected, let alone celebrated as they should be.’ A few pages later we read, ‘Prostitutes! They are our great sexual mothers. Also, they saved men from fucking cows, from fucking mud.’ In her author’s note, Roffey describes The Tryst as her ‘small, sexy novel.’ Partly, at least, this does come from the sex itself, but in comparison with Lilah, the novel’s hero/villain/Viagra pill, the physical sex is negligible.

Lilah may title England a land of hypocrites, but it is men who her aphorisms and actions criticise and signal as deceivers. Roffey presents Lilah as a challenge to how women are expected to act, to feel and even think. She is a medicine for Jane and while the references to her otherworldliness only work to distract and interrupt, they are the roots of her otherness; an otherness that drives the novel, overshadows the intermissions of stock-footage sex, and allows Roffey to successfully critique and satirise the culture Bill and Jane inhabit.

The Tryst is published by Dodo Ink and is available here.

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Monique Roffey

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Monique Roffey is an award-winning novelist. Her most recent novel House of Ashes, (Scribner UK) received widespread praise and was shortlisted for the Costa and the BOCAS Prize.Archipelago, winner of the OCM BOCAS prize for Caribbean Literature, was published by Scribner in the UK, Viking in the US, and translated into 5 languages.  Her second novel, The White Woman On the Green Bicycle, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Encore Prize, among other accolades.

Reviewed by Connor Harrison 

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